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My own project was initially sparked by reading the Ezra Stiles Papers at Yale in the late 1980s. Stiles (1727-1795), a Congregationalist minister in Rhode Island and then president of Yale College, struggled with doubts about the truth of Christianity when he was a young man and wandered for a few years in what he later called the "darksome valley" of deism and skepticism. I was especially struck by the extent to which Stiles's doubts were his secret shame, concealed even from his family and closest friends as he shivered with fever on what he thought was his deathbed. After the American Revolution, the Reverend Stiles watched with grave concern as other doubters and deists came out of the closet and started to achieve positions of social prestige and political power. This was especially worrying at a time when states were rewriting their constitutions and reframing the relationship of church and state. There were few outspoken critics of Christianity like Ethan Allen, the Revolutionary War hero from Vermont who published Reason, the Only Oracle of Man in 1785. But Stiles saw dangerous trends in voters who were indifferent to a candidate's religious opinions and in public sentiments that seemed to oppose not only government establishing a particular Protestant sect but even the state merely patronizing and privileging Christianity in general. Stiles, therefore, understood religious skepticism first as a personal psychological struggle, later as a matter of intellectual debate (safely confined to the republic of letters), and finally as an ideological and political problem threatening the new American republic.
At the time I wondered to what degree Stiles's concerns could represent much more than his own religious and intellectual development. He was, after all, a clergyman's son in a region famous for the lingering habits of Puritanism, so dabbling in deism and skepticism might have seemed particularly radical and dangerous. He was also a revealing but not necessarily a representative thinker, and perhaps he was just projecting his own experience onto the nation. But reading and research in the years that followed have convinced me that from the creation of the first American republic in the Revolution to its dissolution in the Civil War, the relation of skepticism and faith would be played out again and again in similar terms but in different contexts.
For most people in this period, skepticism was more than the anxious uncertainty of doubt; it was doubt elaborated as a tool of inquiry and critique. In late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America, too, the term "skeptic" primarily and popularly referred to religious skeptics—that is, those who questioned or criticized the truth claims of what was considered to be true religion—Christianity—and not to the rare epistemologist using classical arguments or Cartesian methods to deny certainty in all forms of knowledge. There had long been plenty of sermons and tracts written for doubting Christians, who usually had doubts about the state of their souls or the pertinence of this or that Christian doctrine to their own lives. The skeptic, however, stepped outside the whole belief system, examining it from a critical distance and finding it wanting.
Faith, on the other hand, meant more than intellectual assent to a set of doctrines. It was a commitment of the whole self, a hope and trust that, if genuine, ought to be the foundation of an entire way of life and vision of the world. Beliefs, we might say, are linguistic formulations that try to give expression to and elaborate the cognitive content of faith as a lived experience; skepticism is the systematic critique of those beliefs and therefore of the rational dimensions of the faithful way of life
For spiritual power and authority, Protestants looked up to God through his word, they looked alongside themselves to fellow followers of Christ as they built Christian communities, and they looked within themselves for the work of the Holy Spirit. Skepticism attacked the authenticity of the scriptures, challenged the idea that either the sociability of religious affections or the historical success of the church attested to the truth of doctrine, and contested the notion that subjective experience could evidence contact with things supernatural and divine. Skepticism and faith were in a dynamic tension that was critically important to understanding the development of a dominant Protestantism.
Readers of the standard religious histories will ask the same question. The eminently quotable Alexis de Tocqueville said, after all, that Americans were skeptical about everything but religion. Our own America—where churches thrive, supernaturalism sells, spirituality can trump other issues at the ballot box, and God consistently gets great poll numbers—has long been considered the Western world's exception to the secularization and disenchantment that was expected to attend modernity. Whereas previous historical explanations of this state of affairs looked to our supposed Puritan heritage, more recent interpretations have focused on precisely the period of my study. In the decades immediately following 1776, according to one prominent account, American Christianity was democratized, its surge of religious revivals revealing a religious movement that absorbed and directed the radical, egalitarian, populist, individualistic energies of the Revolution. In the early nineteenth century, according to another, as proselytizers and promoters vigorously competed for adherents in a denominational free market, a higher proportion of Americans formed closer associations with Christian institutions, ideas, and practices than ever before. Between the Revolution and the Civil War, according to a third, Americans created a powerful intellectual synthesis fusing republican political ideology, common-sense moral reasoning, and evangelical Protestantism. A rich and deep historiography shows us how the evangelicalism that emerged from what's called the Second Great Awakening shaped the politics of the second party system; how activist Protestantism fueled the great movements for social reform; how religious faith and scriptural argument provided the foundations for proslavery, antislavery, and every conceivable moral argument; how Christian views of Providence and creation dictated understandings of nature, history, and progress; and how pious sentimentalism was the beating heart of family life. Christianity refined and polished the genteel, rocked the cradle of the middle class, and provided both comfort and a language of resistance for the poor, the oppressed, and the enslaved.
So where were the skeptics? Some of the Founding Fathers—Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson most notably—were deists who believed in a creator and in morals derived from nature but not in the divinity of either the Bible or Jesus. While these gentlemen kept—or tried to keep—their heterodox views to themselves, small groups of other deists, inspired by Thomas Paine's Age of Reason (1794) and the lectures of former Presbyterian minister Elihu Palmer, organized a few deistical societies and published newspapers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The socioeconomic transformations wrought by new markets and new modes of industrial production after 1815 launched a new generation of social and religious radicalism. From the mid-1820s to about 1840, reformers like Robert Owen, Frances Wright, and Abner Kneeland identified themselves as religious skeptics and freethinkers—or "free enquirers"—who doubted or denied most or all of Christianity's claims about God, man, and salvation. Their point of view was aptly summarized by a loyal reader's testimonial in one of their free-thought newspapers in 1829. "I am now a sceptic … I live for this world, because I know nothing of any other. I doubt all revelations from heaven, because they appear to me improbable and inconsistent … I desire to see men's wishes bounded by what they can see and know; for I am convinced that they would thus become more contented, more practically benevolent, and more permanently happy, than any dreams of futurity can make them." As with the deists, the free enquirers' energies were divided between criticizing traditional (supernatural) religion and trying to offer an alternate vision for life in the world.
Christians called the deists and free enquirers "infidels," a pejorative term that some of the latter would defiantly adopt as their own, the way that some activist homosexuals in the twentieth century adopted "queer." They are understudied: the standard works on deism and organized free thought in the period were published in the 1930s and 1940s; the first half of a short study by Martin E. Marty titled The Infidel: Freethought in American Religion, published in 1961, has nearly been the last word on the subject. Certainly the efforts of these small groups of infidels were dwarfed by the legions conducting religious revivals, creating missions and moral reform societies, distributing Bibles and Christian tracts, and building churches across the land. Just as certainly, though, the experiences of people labeled infidels and the ideas branded as "infidelity" have remained hidden because of the stories we have chosen to tell about the nation's religious past. Even if few Americans publicly challenged Christian truth claims, Christianity's hegemonic triumph remains to be accounted for, and the reasons why and how the skeptical critique continued to haunt American Christianity need to be explained.